Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that involves extreme shifts in mood and activity levels. It’s a complex condition but often responds well to treatment.
If you have bipolar disorder, know that you’re not alone. There’s a large community out there of people living with bipolar disorder, each with unique experiences.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that around 4.4% of adults in the United States will have bipolar disorder during their lifetime.
Experts are researching and improving treatments all the time. With the right treatments and coping methods, people with bipolar disorder can usually manage their symptoms well and live full, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
Bipolar disorder used to be called “manic depression,” but healthcare professionals no longer use this term.
Each person has a unique experience of bipolar disorder. For some, the mood episodes last just a few hours or days. For others, they might last for weeks or months.
An event or experience can trigger a mood episode. Triggers can include stress, sleep disruption, alcohol use, and substance use.
All types of bipolar disorder respond well to treatment. Treatments aim to help you manage your symptoms. They may include medications, psychotherapy, and day-to-day coping methods.
The average age that people develop bipolar disorder is 25 years old.
Bipolar disorder is often misunderstood, and there are many myths about bipolar disorder. Thankfully, the tide is turning.
Plenty of advocacy groups and support groups exist to help people understand and manage the condition, so you don’t have to go through it alone. Check out the International Bipolar Foundation and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance to find support groups, resources, and more.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder. Doctors diagnose bipolar I after at least one manic episode. Many people with bipolar I disorder experience hypomanic and depressive episodes, too.
- Bipolar II disorder. Doctors diagnose bipolar II after at least one depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode.
- Cyclothymic disorder. You may receive this diagnosis if you’ve had bipolar-like symptoms for at least 2 years, but your symptoms don’t quite meet the criteria for bipolar disorder.
Your doctor might also use other specifiers to help describe your symptoms. These can include:
- bipolar disorder with anxious distress
- bipolar disorder with mixed features, where you have symptoms of mania and depression at the same time
- bipolar disorder with rapid cycling, where you have four or more episodes of mania or depression in 1 year
In children, the bipolar-equivalent diagnosis is disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.
If you think you might have bipolar disorder, the best thing to do is reach out to a healthcare professional for support and advice.
Our bipolar disorder test can help you think about your symptoms, but bear in mind that this is no substitute for talking with a mental health professional. Additionally, it’s possible to experience many of the symptoms described in the quiz from time to time without having bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition.
If you live with bipolar disorder, chances are you already know your own symptoms pretty well. Bipolar disorder symptoms differ between people, and they might differ from one mood episode to the next.
It can be helpful to keep track of your symptoms over time to identify any patterns in your mood changes. Better understanding these shifts is a great first step in learning to deal with them.
In the United States, mental health professionals diagnose bipolar disorder based on the symptoms outlined in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Bipolar disorder is characterized by manic episodes, hypomanic episodes, and depressive episodes. You might experience one or two of these states, or all three, depending on the type and severity of your condition.
During a manic episode, or mania, you might feel like you’re on top of the world. It might feel like you can do or achieve anything. On the other hand, you might feel very irritable, especially with others who don’t share your mindset at the time.
Having one episode of mania is enough for you to receive a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder.
A manic episode is a period of 1 week or longer during which you experience the following:
- elevated self-esteem or feelings of grandiosity
- a feeling of boundless energy
- extreme happiness, euphoria, or extreme irritation
- needing less sleep
- fast, loud, and sometimes disorganized speech
- racing thoughts and rapidly changing ideas
- feeling or seeming very distractable
- doing lots of activities at once, such as taking on work projects, organizing social events, or making seemingly purposeless movements
- engaging in risky behaviors, such as overspending, risky sexual behavior, or risky financial investments
By definition, the symptoms of a manic episode are extreme enough that they get in the way of your daily life. You might do things you wouldn’t otherwise, and people close to you can typically notice the changes.
In some situations, mania may require a trip to the hospital to keep you safe.
A hypomanic episode, or hypomania, involves similar symptoms as a manic episode. The difference is that the symptoms:
- are less severe than in a manic episode
- have less impact on your daily life
- don’t require a hospital visit
- are present for at least 4 days in a row
If you have hypomanic episodes but no manic episodes, you might get a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder.
If you’re having a depressive episode, or an episode of depression, you may be experiencing:
- a depressed mood, which might feel like extreme sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness
- a loss of pleasure in things that you typically enjoy
- feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt
- fatigue or a lack of energy
- difficulty thinking or concentrating
- weight loss or gain
- changes in appetite
- suicidal thoughts or actions
When you’re not receiving treatment, the mood episodes can be severe. During depressive episodes, you might notice you’re having thoughts about death or suicide. It’s important to remember that these feelings will pass, and that you don’t have to go through it alone.
As with most mental health conditions, researchers are still not certain what causes bipolar disorder. It’s likely to be a complex mix of genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences.
Bipolar disorder runs in families. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association says that 80% to 90% of people with bipolar disorder have a relative with either depression or bipolar disorder.
The structure of your brain and the workings of chemical messengers, such as serotonin and dopamine, likely play a role.
Research also shows that childhood trauma is a risk factor for bipolar disorder and for more severe symptoms. Childhood trauma can include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences.
Bipolar disorder, like most mental health conditions, is best diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or clinical social worker.
While a family physician or general practitioner may offer a preliminary diagnosis, only a mental health specialist offers the experience and skills necessary to diagnose bipolar disorder reliably.
Even though experts aren’t yet sure about the exact causes of bipolar disorder, they’ve been able to develop a range of effective treatments that help people manage their mood episodes.
For many people, treatment involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Finding the best course of treatment for you might take some trial and error. Certain medications work better for some people than others. It can take a month or two before you start to feel the full benefits of the treatment plan.
Self-help strategies for this condition vary in their effectiveness, depending upon the person and the severity of the disorder. Some people find it beneficial to join a support group, read books explaining effective self-help strategies, or keep a journal.
You can journal on paper or through a mood or journaling app.
One of the biggest challenges of treating bipolar disorder is finding and maintaining a treatment routine that works best for you over the long term.
Most people with this condition take medications for much of their life, but it can be a challenge to stick with the medications when all seems well years down the road.
Commonly prescribed medications for this disorder include mood stabilizers, like lithium. Some treatments may also involve the use of additional medications, like anticonvulsants, atypical antipsychotics, or antidepressants.
Consider asking your doctor about the possible side effects of the medications you’re prescribed, as well as what may happen if you miss a few doses — are there any symptoms of withdrawal?
If you’d like to get help but are unsure where to start, the NIMH provides resources for helping you find treatment.
With appropriate treatment, the outlook for someone with bipolar disorder is positive. Most people respond to medication.
Lithium is often the first medication healthcare professionals turn to for treating bipolar disorder. Decades of
Research suggests lithium helps reduce manic episodes and the risk of suicide. Its effects on depressive episodes are less clear.
An analysis of studies also showed that lithium was better than a placebo medication at preventing relapses of manic episodes.
Living with bipolar disorder presents many daily challenges. What are some of the long-term, successful strategies to staying well, sticking with treatment, and maintaining a balanced mood?
One important aspect of living with this condition is learning to build routines and sticking with them, no matter what. If you stop following your routine, you may be more likely to have a manic or depressive episode.
If you stop taking the mood stabilizer that helps regulate your moods, it could also lead to a manic or depressive episode.
There are a number of reasons why people may stop taking their medications. They may want to avoid the side effects, which for antipsychotic drugs could include rapid weight gain, or they may seek out the positive feelings that episodes of mania and hypomania bring.
It can help to talk with others who’ve had similar experiences or read about other people’s experiences online. There are many blogs devoted to bipolar disorder.
You might also find it helpful to try some self-help strategies as one part of your comprehensive treatment plan.
If you have a loved one with bipolar disorder, you might want to help them but don’t quite know how. This article offers tips for supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder.
There are many ways to get started in your journey of recovery with bipolar disorder. Many people start by speaking with a family doctor about their symptoms.
Consult with a mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, right away. Given their specialized training and broad experience with treating mental health conditions, these professionals can provide a more reliable mental health diagnosis than a family doctor can.
Learn more and find support with these resources:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides more information about bipolar disorder.
- You can use the Find a Psychiatrist database from the American Psychiatric Association to find a psychiatrist in your region.
- The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance offers free online support groups and other information.
If you’re interested in seeking further help, but you’re unsure where to start, check out our find help page.